Benson not the Saint NFL has made him to be

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MIAMI --- The man who almost made the Saints go marching out of New Orleans is a hero in his hometown now.

Saints owner Tom Benson's story of the team's recovery has him never wavering in his commitment to New Orleans.   Charlie Riedel/AP Photo
Charlie Riedel/AP Photo
Saints owner Tom Benson's story of the team's recovery has him never wavering in his commitment to New Orleans.

According to the official NFL version of the Super Bowl's feel-good story, owner Tom Benson almost single-handedly saved the team in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In truth, he was one of the last people in a very long line to return.

It was the tradesmen who worked around-the-clock for nine months to put the Superdome back together again, and it was former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue who refused to let Benson budge in the meantime. Yet even those efforts would have been for naught without the legion of fans who scooped up every ticket and souvenir in sight.

Then, and only then, did Benson forget about staying in San Antonio, where the Saints relocated after the storm, and commit to coming back to New Orleans. Yet there he was as Super Bowl festivities kicked off early in the week, saying, "At no time did we look anywhere else."

The irony, to be sure, is that Benson really did save the Saints once. But that was in 1985, when he bought the franchise from John Mecom for $70 million and squashed rumors that it was headed to Jacksonville, Fla. Benson was hailed as a hero then, too, feted as the impulsive multimillionaire who popped open a black parasol with gold fringes and fleur-de-lis, then did a second-line dance on the field of the Superdome in the closing minutes of wins.

In a town that loves dancing, the "Benson Boogie" soon became all the rage. Yet few people loved it more than Benson's granddaughter, who was already being groomed as his successor.

In the tumultuous months after the flood waters drove the Saints to San Antonio, LeBlanc took a more active role in day-to-day management and became the face of the franchise back in New Orleans.

Perhaps her most impressive feat was the way LeBlanc softened her grandfather's rough edges. Benson enraged the New Orleans citizenry several times in the months after Katrina, carrying on a verbal battle with then-Mayor Ray Nagin and a public flirtation with San Antonio, where Benson owns several dealerships and spends much of the year.

But his hands were tied by then-commissioner Tagliabue, whose commitment to New Orleans never wavered, and current NFL boss Roger Goodell, who served as the league's point man in smoothing over what was a very tough transition.

What made it come together, above all, was winning. After 43 years filled mostly with futility, the Saints finally made it to the Super Bowl. The run helped transform Benson's image from ruthless, restless businessman to genial, graying eminence.

During media day, the 82-year-old Benson worked the room with his soft Louisiana drawl and wife, Gayle, clinging tightly to his side.

A few yards away, LeBlanc held court on her own. Every so often, she broke eye contact and cast a protective glance in the direction of her grandfather. On this day, at least, she had nothing to worry about.

Benson had his story down pat and though history might suggest otherwise, he was sticking to it.

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